She scaled up — way up — from community gardens, and wants to help people of color follow her lead
Karen Washington’s first career as a community organizer won her all sorts of accolades: the James Beard Award, making Ebony’s Power 100 list. In her “retirement,” she is deep into career number two—farming the black dirt. Washington co-founded Rise and Root Farm in 2015 with three other women. It’s part of the Chester Agricultural Center, whose goal is to preserve black dirt farmland, transition it to organic, and knock down barriers for small to mid-size farmers. On a spring afternoon, Washington spoke to a group of about 25 farmers and would-be farmers, English and Spanish speakers, about her own journey and her gratification at seeing people of color follow in her footsteps. Here are excerpts from her talk.
THE LIFE-CHANGING TOMATO
My roots are from New York City, from community gardens. That’s where I started 30 years ago. I had no farming experience whatsoever. Closest I came to food was the fact that my mom was a good cook and I had three meals a day. It wasn’t until I moved to the Bronx in 1985, had a backyard, and decided, eh... I’m going to try and grow something. So I started with three things: I started to grow tomatoes; collards—I had to grow collards because collards is a staple in the African American community—and eggplant, because it sounded crazy and I wanted to find out, was it really an egg or a plant?
What changed my world was a tomato because I hated tomatoes. Tomatoes in the store, they weren’t red. They were pink, and they were mushy and had no taste. But when I grew my tomato, first of all it grew on a vine. My relationship to food was everything came from a store. So the fact that it grows on a vine number one; the fact that it was red number two; and when I bit into it? The juices that were flowing, and the taste. Oh my goodness. I was hooked. I was so hooked that I wanted to grow everything, from the tops of pineapples to avocados.
EMPTY LOT? NOT ANYMORE
There was an empty lot across the street. At one time believe it or not, New York City had over 15,000 vacant lots, mostly in low-income neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color. And so people got together to turn those empty lots into community gardens, and that’s where I got my mojo and starting to grow more food in a 15-by-10 feet plot. Started growing, started honing my skills and then met my partners: Jane [Hodge], Michaela [Hayes] and Lorrie [Clevenger].
We went on a women’s retreat in 2008. In that retreat of 40 women, we all talked about dreaming. I tell people dream big. Put your dreams out into the universe. And our dream was to one day all farm together. We said that was a dream—but we put it out to the universe.
LOOKING FOR LAND
We started asking questions and then traveling up and down the Hudson Valley. And what we found was that there was land, but the cost of land was so expensive. The closer you are to New York City the more expensive land was. We heard that land was going for a million dollars, a couple hundred thousand dollars. Then we would go to places where we would find land, but someone’s mother lived on the land and we would have to take care of the mother. Then we went to another place that had Christmas trees, but were we really in the Christmas tree business?
And so again when I say dream big? Put it out in the universe? I happened to be on a tour of the Hudson Valley Farm Hub. I was sitting on a bus next to this guy and he introduced himself. He says, my name is Steven Rosenberg. I’m from Scenic Hudson. And I say I’m Karen Washington. I’m from New York City. He says, my job is to preserve land in the Hudson Valley. I said, my job is to preserve community gardens and land in New York City. And I told him, you know my friends and I, we’ve been up and down the Hudson Valley looking for land. We can’t find land. And he said I got a name and I got a telephone number. Call this number. So I took the number, put it in my pocket, went home and put it on the dresser and said to that number, mmmm, I’m not gonna call. Nothing’s gonna happen.
The little angel on your shoulder said call, you got nothing to lose. Sometimes that happens, people give us information and we sort of say no it’s not going to happen because we always afraid of negative, afraid of defeat. So I call that number. And so there was a guy on the end, he says well, you know what? I have a proposition for you, this land called the Chester Agricultural Center. He said if you’re interested come up and meet us at the Chester Diner, and the rest is history.
DO Y’ALL HAVE FLEA BEATLES?
The soil in New York City is totally different than the soil here. We heard about the black dirt, we heard about how rich it was. And so our first year we decided we were going to grow everything. Especially when you get the catalogs, right? Yeah. You get the catalogs and everything looks so good.
We tried to grow everything, from collards to kale to tomatoes, you name it—and realized we’re four women, three acres, we were doing everything by hand and did not understand the we-ee-ed pressure. Did not understand the demands of this soil. In the very beginning everything was coming up nice because we did direct sowing. Everything was coming up nice and then all of a sudden within a week’s time, it’s like, so where the collards? Where’s the kale? Because all of a sudden the weeds were coming up so fast that we couldn’t keep track of what we were growing. That’s number one.
Number two, the vegetations that we had were green and luscious until our farming partners on the side said to us, “Do y’all have flea beetles?” Now in New York City we have aphids, so it’s like what the heck are flea beatles? So we said no, our kale and our collards are luscious! The next day they went from luscious to sticks. So Jane and Lorrie and I, we’re outside with hand vacuums, trying to vacuum up the flea beetles off of the crop because we were selling at market.
Our mentor at Roxbury Farm [a teaching farm in Columbia County] told us from the very beginning: pick five things and grow them the best. So now after our first year, second year, third year, we finally get it. So our intention is: we grow the best heirloom tomatoes in the world, bar none. We grow edible flowers, the best in the world. We grow lisianthus, the best flower in the world. And we grow herbs. We got it down. And now we also use landscape fabric to help control the weeds. But it’s something that we had to learn.
TIME IS MONEY
Our farm is a healing farm. And so time and time again people come to our farm just to get away from some of the obstacles that they have, and we encourage people to come to our farm just to be in the presence of love and harmony. Each month we have a community day where we open up the farm. People want to come and see your farm, but they have to understand that any time a person comes to visit, it takes away your time from the farm, and time is money. And so, they have to pay now. They pay to come visit. Just to make sure you understand that.
CULTIVATE YOURSELF, TOO
Self-care is really important, taking time out to help your body and your mind. Take time to be with family and friends and have a good time. Don’t let the farm eat at you, because then you’ll find out that it’s not something you want to do. So think about enjoying yourself, taking care of yourself, taking care of your body.
I talk to a lot of farmers: we don’t think about putting money aside for retirement. I’m telling you from experience, no matter how much you make, try to put a little bit aside for a rainy day or a little bit aside so that you start investing in yourself for retirement. A lot of people get older, you don’t even think about it, then you’re in your forties or fifties and you don’t have a dime put away. So think about investing in your future as well.
LOOKING BACK + FORWARD
What we’re trying to do is learn about the history. The Lenape people were here from the beginning. So we have to give thanks to the ancestors who were here before and ask permission and give gratitude, and not take it for granted.
Thanks to the Chester Agricultural Center because they get it. They understand that if we’re going to move forward with the next generation of farmers, then there has to be land. There has to be land that’s affordable for the next wave of farmers. Right now we have a 30-year renewable lease. I’m 65. Thirty years, I don’t know if I’m gonna be here. But it’s unheard of in farming. A 30-year lease for new farmers to at least have a chance to grow, to have a chance to part of farming.
For me as a black woman to see so many black and Latino young men and women now wanting to farm, where in the past, our history has always been for us to be away from the land. Now, black and Latino young men and women understand the relationship to food and health, the relationship to their ancestors, and now they are coming back to the land, because they understand that it takes a village. It takes diversity, not in terms of crops, but diversity of farmers to make this country great.